N.C. A&T Receives NSF Build and Broaden Grant for Speech Science Research

By Jackie Torok / 09/23/2021 Research and Economic Development, College of Health and Human Sciences

EAST GREENSBORO, N.C. (Sept. 23, 2021) – North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University has received a $320,565 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for collaborative research on speech science that could improve the automatic speech recognition systems that are becoming ubiquitous in technology, healthcare and education.

Joseph D. Stephens, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Psychology in the John R. and Kathy R. Hairston College of Health and Human Sciences, is the principal investigator for “Enhancing Speech Science Training through Collaboration: Investigating Perception of a Variable Speech Signal,” which has received funding through the NSF Build and Broaden Program.

The North Carolina A&T project team also includes Cassandra Germain, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology, Deana McQuitty, Ph.D., associate professor of speech communication, and Joy Kennedy, Ph.D., assistant professor of speech communication.

They will collaborate with a research team at Pennsylvania State University, led by Navin Viswanathan, Ph.D., associate professor in the Communication Sciences and Disorders Department.

The Build and Broaden Program focuses on supporting research, offering training opportunities, and creating greater research infrastructure at minority-serving institutions.

NSF’s new awards for the Build and Broaden Program, which total more than $12 million, support more than 20 minority-serving institutions in 12 states and Washington, D.C. Nearly half of this funding came from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. These funds aim to bolster institutions and researchers who were impacted particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the project’s three-year grant period, researchers from A&T and Penn State will help to make speech science and technology both more effective and more equitable.

“We will help the science to become more inclusive by investigating how human listeners understand variable speech, and will help diversify the field by increasing the capacity and involvement of students from groups that are underrepresented in speech science,” said Stephens.

A critical yet unsolved question in speech science is how human listeners achieve robust speech perception despite a highly variable speech signal.

“There are conflicting theories of how speech perception works at a very basic level,” said Stephens. “One of the great strengths of this project is that it brings together investigators from different theoretical perspectives to resolve this conflict with careful experiments.”

Additionally, the project will significantly strengthen research capacity in speech science at N.C. A&T, the nation’s largest historically Black university. It will provide research training for students in speech science, foster collaborations between researchers at A&T and Penn State, and enhance opportunities for faculty development.

Stephens’s research investigates how the human mind combines information from more than one source. This type of information processing is crucial for cognitive functions like memory, perception, and language. His work has appeared in journals such as Memory, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, and Psychology and Aging, among others. His research is also funded by the National Institutes of Health through a collaboration with Elon University.

The other A&T faculty investigators on the project have related research interests at the intersection of psychology and communication sciences. One of the goals of A&T’s speech program, housed in the School of Nursing, is to provide students with the knowledge of basic human communication, to include normal and abnormal processes within the domains of biological, psychological, developmental, and culturally and linguistically based functions.

The speech program will be an integral partner in building capacity for underrepresented populations within the discipline of communication sciences and disorders and health communication. Within the profession of speech-language pathology, cognitive aspects of communication are considered one of the “Big Nine” areas of communication disorders.

“This project is a great example of interdisciplinary collaborations within the CHHS and with other institutions. We are excited at the opportunities to engage both undergraduate and graduate students in research and prepare them for emerging job opportunities,” said Lenora Campbell, Ph.D., Hairston College dean. “This collaboration will provide transformative academic and clinical experiences for undergraduate students to prepare them for graduate education in communication sciences and disorders.”

Media Contact Information: jtorok@ncat.edu

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